In the mid-‘80S, Paul Simon faced stinging criticism for defying a cultural embargo against South Africa to record his Grammy-winning Graceland album with musicians from the apartheid-ruled nation. Now, decades later, the singer-songwriter confronts the painful episode again in director Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies (available with the special Graceland edition on June 5), in which he debates some of his harshest critics and reunites with the South African performers who helped craft the landmark album.
The issue appeared to be settled when, after apartheid’s collapse, Simon raised hands in celebration with Nelson Mandela in 1992. So why pick at the scar now? ”I think it’s interesting,” Simon tells EW. ”I don’t really think of it as a scar. It was a controversy that I was in. Some people were critical, and we had our answer to the criticism.” That answer: Simon felt he was giving an international platform to performers such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who put a human face on South Africa’s oppression.
In the documentary, Berlinger, the Oscar-nominated codirector of the Paradise Lost trilogy, gives critics their say but ultimately backs up Simon’s view. ”Apartheid was trying to destroy black culture, to reduce them to subhuman status, and [”Simon”] was trying to elevate them and send a message out about that culture,” Berlinger tells EW. ”Why would that be banned? It’s inconsistent, that political rigidity.”
The United Nations and the African National Congress saw it differently, and denounced Simon’s decision not to seek their approval. (Simon calls it ”a likelihood” they would have said no, and claims artists shouldn’t be beholden to politics.) Hard feelings persist for some South Africans. In the film, Simon argues the issue with Dali Tambo, cofounder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late ANC president Oliver Tambo, who says Simon helped a handful of musicians at the cost of the larger struggle. Neither man changes his mind, but by the end of the conversation they are embracing. ”That was a brave move on his part, to make himself available and speak what was on his mind and sit face-to-face with me,” Simon says. ”It was good for both of us to hear it and think about it. Now we’re, well…I guess if I saw Dali again, I would think he was my friend.”
Skies also tells the story of Graceland’s African musicians, who used their artistry as one escape from a life of fear. ”They were living in a situation where people were being killed,” Simon says. ”I was fighting a big artistic battle, and so were they. But they were also fighting for their survival.”